National Book Awards Finds New Host in Reading Rainbow Star

LaVar Burton returns as the host of the 74th National Book Awards in place of Drew Barrymore. Let’s take a look at the literacy legacy he’s led.

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LeVar Burton at the 2019 National Book Awards.

The National Book Foundation taps Reading Rainbow star and literary advocate LeVar Burton to host the 74th National Book Awards, the foundation announced last Friday, October 13th. This news comes a month after the foundation revoked Drew Berrymore’s invitation to host the event when Berrymore revealed the return of The Drew Berrymore Show during the Writers Guild of America strike. Although Berrymore quickly recalled the return of her show, the foundation decided not to move forward with her as a host, inviting LeVar Burton in her place.

This will be Burton’s second time hosting the National Book Awards, having done his first stint as host in 2019 at the 70th ceremony. Let’s take a look at what makes Burton the perfect replacement for this year’s event.

The Show That Colored Children’s Lives

LeVar Burton started his journey as an education advocate as the executive producer and host of the PBS show Reading Rainbow in 1983. Throughout the 23 seasons of the show’s run, Burton encouraged kids not just to read, but to develop a love of reading. Each episode had a theme based on a featured children’s picture book, field trips with Burton, and reviews from children who had read the book. 

LeVar Burton reading to a group of kids. Burton holds a picture book and sits in the center while kids circle around him.

Upon its premiere, Reading Rainbow succeeded in fostering a connection between kids and books to the point that it became a frequent tool educators used in classrooms. The show would go on to become one of PBS’s longest-running and well-known series, winning over 200 broadcast awards in its run. The success of the show cemented Burton as a significant figure in millions of people’s childhoods. For many, Burton was the one who introduced them to their love of books.

Burton’s Achievements on the Other Side of the Rainbow

When PBS canceled Reading Rainbow in 2006, Burton spent the following years finding ways to continue the message of the show. In 2012 he ended up reviving Reading Rainbow as an app, now known as Skybrary, after a legal dispute over the Reading Rainbow brand. The app is an interactive library full of books and videos that encourage the app’s motto, “Reading is fundamental.” The videos often star Burton as he takes the viewers on field trips similar to the adventures he had in Reading Rainbow episodes.

LeVar Burton in a recording studio, holding an iPad that reads "Aftermath by LeVar Burton."

Burton also has a podcast called LeVar Burton Reads, where he reads short stories each week. Some episodes include stories by Toni Morrison, Stephen King, and more. 

Most recently, Burton acted as honorary chair for the 2023 Banned Books Week. During the event, he hosted a conversation about censorship and advocacy. You can listen to Burton’s thoughts on banned books here.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Burton expressed the love and respect he has for books and writers alike. Of the upcoming National Book Awards, he commented,

I’m a big believer in the power of the written word, and am proud to stand alongside the National Book Foundation to celebrate exceptional storytelling and the Foundation’s mission to make books accessible to everyone, everywhere. It’s an honor to return as host of the biggest night for books, especially in a moment when the freedom to read is at risk and literature both needs and deserves our recognition and support.

Burton continues the advocacy work he started all those years ago on PBS by encouraging children and adults alike to nourish their relationship with books and believe in the power of reading.

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